This collection of 125 poems and prose pieces was written over the Heian period, spanning a century of Japanese culture. This work of waka poetry has influenced many years of literature throughout Japanese history.
The poems depict many different periods of a young man's life and coming of age, tracing his various relationships, loves, challenges, and adventures. This man, referred to as Narihira, is a good-looking aristocrat who is eventually dismissed from court disgracefully and writes poems to his beloved whom he leaves behind. He references nature and thoughts of his lover. He also references customs and costumes of the court, as well as the culture. Many of the poems describe his meetings or encounters with others, many of which end in an unsatisfactory or uncertain manner.
The poems are not typical fairy tales with "happily ever after" endings. Though the poems themselves are very short, the literary collection also includes a section of reflection or commentary about each of the poems which provides greater insight and interpretation into the word choice and meaning.
Some of the meaning and depth of the poems is lost in translation, as the poetry is not as effective in English as it is in traditional Japanese. Many of the poems begin with the sentiment of, "Long Ago." The book was published with beautiful images from engraved wood-block prints.
Not too many years after the capital is moved from Nara to Kyoto, in 794, there lives a man who loves love. Shortly after his maturity rite (which at that time was usually at the age of eleven) and when the boy grows four and a half feet tall, the youth goes falcon hunting at Kasuga in the former capital. There he happens to see two beautiful sisters and sends them a poem. The poem begins the description of the love life of this man. Later, he meets and begins to visit a performer in the imperial court. When their love affair is exposed, the woman is made unavailable by the simple expediency of placing her in service at court where, in 866, she becomes the consort of the Emperor Seiwa.
Tiring of life in the capital, the man goes on a trip to eastern Japan, but he goes no farther than the border of Ise and Owari Provinces when he becomes homesick and composes poems to express his nostalgia. He meets an itinerant priest, sees Mount Fuji for the first time, and composes a poem. Entering the province of Musashi, at the Sumida River that runs through present-day Tokyo, he composes a celebrated poem of nostalgia concerning the oystercatcher birds. In Musashi he also meets and is attracted to various women. Later he wanders through the region to the northeast, where he makes love to the local country women.
Friends since early childhood, the man and the daughter of Aritsune eventually marry, but Narihira does not long remain faithful to her. Scattered through the episodes, however, are hints that cause the reader to believe that she manages to draw him back to her after each infidelity.
In another story, there is the eternal triangle involving two men and one woman, with the usual tragic results. The woman in this case waits three years for the return of a man who leaves to make his fortune in the capital. Meanwhile, she is courted by a second man, who finally wins her promise of marriage. The first man, returning on the wedding night, learns what happened during his absence and leaves the woman with his blessing. Following him, she loses her life.
There is, in another story, a weakling son of good family and a household maid. In another, a young woman is in love but too shy to make her feelings known. She dies with her love unrequited as a result. Two faithless people have an affair, each sends the other poems charging the other with faithlessness. A beloved wife has a husband who is so busy with his duties at court that she feels neglected and goes with another man to...
(The entire section is 1,032 words.)